When I’m at “The Pit” Thursday night, I’ll probably feel as though I’m watching Pitt. Midwestern Conference rivals Aliquippa and Beaver Falls have both relied heavily upon underclassmen in the backfield to lead their respective teams back to the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.
Dravon Henry leads the district champion Quips (5-0, 7-0) and ranks ninth in Class AA with 655 yards rushing, and fellow junior Terry Swanson isn’t far behind with 638. In fact, Swanson averages 12.5 yards per attempt, which is better than any running back in the classification with at least 20 carries.
Henry has been offered by the Panthers, as well as Big East nemeses Cincinnati and Rutgers, among several other Division I schools. He and Swanson have combined for 23 touchdowns in 2012.
Meanwhile, Aliquippa’s first-string defense hadn’t allowed anyone to find the end zone until last Friday’s 54-12 win at Ellwood City. The Tigers (5-1, 6-1) will unleash on them their own three-headed monster: Marcus Cleckley, Damian Rawl, and Rob Bell.
Rawl and Cleckley are both juniors. Rawl averages over seven yards per run and leads BF with 634 yards, and Cleckley, often used as a protector and a return specialist, averages over eight yards per carry and has contributed three touchdowns.
Bell, a senior, has run for almost 500 yards and shares with Rawl the team scoring lead with nine total TD’s.
Even junior quarterback Dan Stratton has gotten into the act; his 28 carries are third-most on the team. Stratton, who has thrown for 15 TD’s, over 1,000 yards, and just three picks, gives a significant other dimension to Ryan Matsook’s offense.
I’ve said all along the Quips wouldn’t be tested until these last two weeks of the season: Thursday and next Friday, against Beaver. But Aliquippa might have the most athletic defense of any Class AA team in the state, so the offensive and defensive lines of Beaver Falls, which have impressed me so far, need to play nothing short of their best game of the year.
You can watch it at 7:00 on ROOT Sports.
Another running back paying rich dividends for his squad is senior Alex DeCiantis, who led North Allegheny to a decisive 28-0 win over Pittsburgh Central Catholic in Week 7 Northern Eight action, as heard on 93.7 The Fan.
With the Tigers clinging to a 7-0 lead at halftime despite statistically controlling the first half, DeCiantis took charge with three second-half scores and finished with 161 yards on 29 carries. He now ranks fifth among Quad-A running backs with 696 yards and leads N.A. with nine TD’s.
What’s interesting is, even though head coach Art Walker has Mack Leftwich, one of the most prolific passers in the WPIAL, he really seemed to simplify his offense against the Vikings in the second half, throwing only five times. To be fair, when you have one of the best lines in the PIAA, you can get away with it.
One of the things I asked DeCiantis after last week’s game if he thinks the backfield is built for an old-school approach:
Like us on Facebook to vote for DeCiantis, or one of our other nominees, as our Week 7 WPIAL football Athlete Of The Week. In addition, voting is still open for our Week 6 nominees: Dante Marsick (Rochester), Seth Miller (Jeannette), Travis Snyder (Belle Vernon), and Luigi Lista-Brinza (Central Catholic).
Congratulations from yours truly are long overdue to Pat Monroe and the Gladiators (5-1, 6-1) of South Allegheny, who erased a quarter-century playoff drought with last week’s victory over Keystone Oaks in Century Conference play.
When I started covering high school football, I quickly became a fan of Monroe, who coached Duquesne to its last WPIAL title in 2005. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before he shaped up another program.
South Allegheny will have a postseason football game for the first time since 1986, but it isn’t the only local team that could end a dry spell. Butler (2-3, 3-4), currently fifth in the Northern Eight Conference, clinches its first playoff berth since 1998 with a win over Fox Chapel and a Pine-Richland loss to North Hills. In Quad-A, the top five teams in each section qualify, with one sixth-place “wild card” rounding out the field of 16.
In Class AAA, Ambridge (3-3, 3-4) finally seems to be turning a corner after going 6-21 in the first three years of the Neil Tkatch regime. The Bridgers close the season against playoff-bound Central Valley, then struggling Blackhawk, as they build toward a rare postseason appearance.
In Class AA, Valley (4-2, 5-2) and Kittanning (4-2, 4-3), who are playing down after a rough stretch in Class AAA, have a chance to really shake things up in the Allegheny Conference. Both are tied with Shady Side Academy for third place, and they meet in New Kensington Friday night.
The Vikings, just to refresh your memory, had to break a 22-game losing streak to start the season. The Wildcats only won one game apiece in 2010 and 2011–both against Valley.
In Class A, Avella remains the feel-good story of the season. The Eagles (4-2, 5-2) are one of three Tri-County South teams with matching records, and are on the cusp of their first playoff berth since 1976. Visiting conference leader Beth-Center won’t be easy, but Avella closes the regular season at Bentworth, so what was the longest of long shots just a few years ago is now very much within reach.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)